The state is trying to improve its efforts to prepare prison inmates for release, but it needs the capacity to do much more.
One man said he got out three weeks ago after serving 18 years in state prison for second-degree murder. He was 17 when he went in, so he has a lot to learn about living on his own.
I’ve been writing about people like him and the need to help prisoners and ex-prisoners make a successful transition to life outside for their benefit and the community’s. Much of that work is done by nonprofit organizations and volunteers, but their efforts aren’t as effective as having a comprehensive program built into the corrections system would be.
Last time I wrote about that, some folks at the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) asked me to take a look at what they’re doing in that direction. I did, and while they are on the right track, the train has a long way to go. Far more prisoners get out each year than they’re equipped to deal with. It’s good that they know that, too.
The ex-prisoner who just got out is part of a pilot project to expand and improve DOC’s efforts to prepare people for a life that doesn’t include getting out of prison only to return because nothing about their ability to live crime-free had changed.
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About a decade ago, the federal government began funding efforts to reduce recidivism, under the Second Chance Act. Washington state eventually got a grant and began running the trial in King County last May. The grant helps DOC bring a cluster of community partners together to provide the wide range of services prisoners need.
DOC staff and representatives of the partner organizations have regular meetings to work on refining the program, and at one of them last week, several ex-prisoners talked about their experiences.
The ex-prisoner I’ve mentioned said the bond he formed with the transition specialist, a former prisoner, made him trust the new program. Several other men said the same, that transition specialists, who begin working with people while they’re still in prison, talked to them, not at them.
One of them said he might have gone back to the homeless encampment called The Jungle, but instead, he said, “I’m gainfully employed for the first time in my life. I have my first checking account.”
The recognition that helping people readjust is beneficial is not entirely new.
Work release, in which prisoners serve the last few months or weeks of their sentences living under supervision in secure facilities in the community, has been around for decades. It was an early recognition that helping prisoners adapt cuts down on the number who later commit crimes and return to prison.
Washington has 16 facilities spread through the state; the largest is Reynolds Work Release, which currently houses 99 men in a century-old building in downtown Seattle.
But work release is a limited program. The population at Reynolds doesn’t seem like much when you consider that more than 1,400 prisoners were released last year in King County alone. And work release is something a prisoner has to earn, partly by good behavior in prison. It’s limited to low-risk inmates, whereas the pilot project is aimed at transforming prisoners who pose a high risk of recidivism without some kind of intervention.
Work release was born before the prison boom that has left us with a huge population of people, many of whom are much less prepared for life beyond bars than the ones who qualify for work release.
The realization that most of them are going to get out eventually, along with better information about recidivism risks, is driving the move to expand transition efforts not only for the benefit of former prisoners, but as an effective crime-fighting tool and public-safety strategy.
The trial project recently expanded to Spokane (there are now 90 participants), but the grant lasts only through September. DOC will then have to figure out a way to keep doing what’s working. DOC Secretary Dan Pacholke is a champion of the program, but he recently announced he’s leaving because of the political outcry over problems that caused the early release of more than 3,000 prisoners.
His departure could be a problem, but the department has moved to make re-entry to society a primary part of its mission, upgrading it to a division on its own.
The movement toward a smarter approach to corrections needs to continue regardless of who’s in charge.